Ruth Lister on the scandalously high citizenship fees affecting descendants of the Windrush generation
A long overdue light has been shone by the recent Windrush scandal. Not just on the ‘hostile environment’ regime created by the government’s immigration policy but also the injustice faced by an estimated 120,000 children entitled to register as British citizens. My Regret Motion, to be debated this evening in the Lords, calls for an independent review of the citizenship registration fees they face.
Despite being born in Britain or having lived here most of their lives, these children are not automatically British because of their parents’ immigration status. They do have the right to register as such, but many, unsurprisingly, cannot afford the £1,012 fee. Some meanwhile, will have been cared for by local authorities who have failed or refused to pay the registration.
Only two fifths of the fee, £372, is attributable to administration. But the Home Office justifies the level on the grounds that it is necessary to help pay for costs relating to the border, immigration and citizenship system. Taxpayers, goes their argument, should not have to pay for the benefit enjoyed by applicants. This may have some substance when justifying fees for adult immigrants applying for naturalisation but not a pre-existing statutory entitlement. In effect, these children are being asked unfairly to help subsidise the immigration system.
The government’s other main response is to suggest that citizenship is not really that important for a person to exercise their rights here. Yet the registration form itself emphasises the significance of becoming a British citizen – both for access to a passport and for ‘the opportunity to participate more fully in the life of their local community as they grow up’.
More worryingly, as Windrush has underlined, the door can be shut on important rights without citizenship documentation – including in the area of higher education. Without such proof, young people can be treated as overseas students, with higher fees, and a lack of access student financial support. They can also be denied access to healthcare, housing or a job; and become victims of the re-badged ‘compliant environment’ policy.
Most seriously, they risk removal – particularly once turning 18. The Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens and Amnesty, who have spearheaded campaigning on this issue, know of cases where the Home Office has subjected children to the removal process. Despite being fully aware of their entitlements. Donations from the public have helped the Project prevent this happening in some cases but it cannot be right that a child must rely on charity to exercise a basic right of citizenship.
Until recently, the issue was largely ignored. Over the past year however, the General Synod, Citizens UK, the Mayor of London and the Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement have all raised concerns. A current cross-party early day motion in the Commons has received strong support. And at his first appearance before the Home Affairs Committee the new Home Secretary, Sajid Javid was questioned closely about the fee. He acknowledged that it represents “a huge amount of money” and that it was “right at some point to take a fresh look at fees”, adding that he would “get around to” it.
Welcome as this movement is from the government, it belies a lack of urgency. Mr Javid has subsequently underlined the importance of learning lessons from Windrush “so that this never happens again”. Yet the longer we wait for action, the greater the risk to these children.
Baroness Ruth Lister of Burtersett is a Labour Peer
Published 12th June 2018